Krista's Journal: Walking the Line

March 9, 2006

Our programs for this week and next are among the most difficult we've created. Startling political transitions compelled us to turn our attention to this region. In Israel, Ariel Sharon departed Israeli politics suddenly, by way of illness, on the brink of a critical election. In Palestinian society, the Islamist group Hamas is forming a new Palestinian cabinet after a surprising victory in recent elections. But the seed of this program was planted in me four years ago, when I first interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi for a program about religious fundamentalism. He and I had a fascinating 20-minute exchange that did not make it into that program — but has lived on via our Web site — on the religious complexity of being a citizen of the "Holy Land." The news rarely addresses this aspect of life with any vividness, except when headlines are violent. Daily life, Halevi told me, felt like a crossroads between apocalypse on the one side and collective transcendence on the other. And he described a constant debate inside the mind and soul of most Israelis, not just between his country's "right" and "left." We struggle with our responsibility for the suffering of Palestinian society, he confessed. And at the same time, he insisted, we feel ourselves engaged in a life and death struggle to survive in a volatile Middle East that has declared war on us since before we were a state. In Jews, he said, whether secular or devout, this awakens a tension between competing biblical, ancestral commandments: to remember that your ancestors were slaves in Egypt and to care for the poor and the weak in your time; and on the other hand, to remember how the Amalekites attacked Israel after it crossed the Red Sea, when it finally felt safe, and never to let that happen again. I have longed ever since to resume this conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi. And I have longed equally to hear the perspective on such themes from Palestinian conversation partners. It felt risky, as we finally sat down to produce these interviews, to split them into two separate programs rather than present "both sides" in counterpoint. But it seemed important to let each of these voices speak at length and in-depth. And I've discovered in this material, as much as any other we've created, the paradox of discussing complex ideas in the context of real lives. There are more than two opinions at stake here. Layers of experience and meaning find expression, as they do within each human story. At Speaking of Faith, we're committed to the journalistic virtue of "balance" in the deepest sense of that word — presenting important subjects in all their complexity. We don't force superficial resolution or incite predictable polarization. We choose to offer our listeners the raw materials to think through large, hard ideas for themselves. Nevertheless, this warning: Our guests this week and next make controversial, subjective statements, both personal and political. We named this show after the one insight that ran through every conversation — that is, any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian past and present yields irreconcilable narratives of the same lived events. Life in this land carries the imprint of 3,000 years of sacred and secular history as well as extraordinary trauma and conflict from the last century. We chose to speak with individuals who identify deeply with the narrative and suffering of their own people and who have also sought to understand the other side. Like the societies they inhabit, they find themselves embittered at the failure of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, reeling from recent events on both sides, and uncertain about the future. I immediately sensed a change in Yossi Klein Halevi since our 2002 conversation. A former Jewish extremist, he had then just published a vibrant, hopeful book about a journey of knowing and praying with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. This was a kind of victory for him. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he had worked to transcend his childhood sense of being a victim of history. Like many Israelis, he went into the Oslo process reexamining his attitudes and Israeli government policies towards Palestinians. He longed for a lasting peace, even at the cost of previously unimaginable compromise, and he believed for the first time that it might be possible. He walks a line these days, he says, between realism and openness. And he sees this stance as a form of spiritual maturity and clarity as important as the love of Islamic prayer that he developed in his now improbable journey. Suicide bombs are no longer exploding daily in buses and cafes around him. But there is a wall under construction, snaking towards his neighborhood — an elaborate security barrier in places over 20 feet high — that will soon physically separate him from the Palestinians he came to know. The wall, he confesses, is the antithesis of his dreams of the 1990s. It is painful to hear Yossi Klein Halevi make this stark statement of despair wrapped in defiance: "The Middle East has rejected me, and now Israel has reciprocated. And I can't bear looking at that wall, but I also know that that security barrier is going to keep my family reasonably safe." For my upcoming Palestinian guests, that same wall cuts them off from family, work, and life itself. It blocks their vision in every sense of that word. The Holy Land, I begin to realize, is the extreme intersection we seek to trace week after week on Speaking of Faith: of religious ideas and human experience intertwined, of theology responsive and at times captive to real life. This realization illuminates an argument that all my guests intone these two weeks: Oslo like other secular political processes failed in part because it did not address or incorporate the range of religious instincts that define Israeli and Palestinian identities. In taking religion seriously as listeners, perhaps, we'll find a new way to honor the dignity of each side in this conflict and to cultivate a vision for real openings towards peace should they come again. For the moment, we can only experience the tensions in these contrasting narratives and take them as raw material for our understanding and reflection.

Voices on the Radio

is a correspondent for The New Republic, senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land.

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